Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive by Hank Williams

I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive

Written by Hank Williams and Fred Rose. Performed by Hank Williams. You can check out a performance here and buy it on iTunes here.

The last song Hank Williams recorded, “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive” didn’t hit the charts until after his death in January 1953. Coming out so soon after William’s mysterious demise – they found him in the backseat of his Cadillac on the side of the road on New Year’s Day – only added pathos to what sounds like a throwaway ditty. Listen enough and you hear country blues at its finest and maybe even a nihilistic anthem.

Backed by the Drifting Cowboys, Williams fills the song with woe that’s comical in its exaggeration. No dirge, Williams sings with a light-hearted voice and big strums on the rhythm guitar.  Reminiscent of the Ray Charles balled, Busted, Williams makes clear his plight, “I had lot’s of luck but it’s all been bad.” He makes his case with down in the country examples of how bad he’s had it:

My fishin’ pole’s broke the creek is full of sand
My woman run away with another man…
…If I jumped in the river I would prob’ly drown

Throughout the song, he has fun with the idea of how downtrodden he is. He loses his inheritance from a long lost uncle when a lawyer proves he couldn’t be related since “I wasn’t born/I was only hatched.” Like a comedian asked how poor he is, Williams is only too glad to give an example:

These shabby shoes I’m wearin’ all the time
Are full of holes and nails
And brother if I stepped on a worn out dime
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails

Through all the fun and smiles, something stronger that remains. Unlike his fervent country gospel songs (check out “I Saw the Light”), here Williams revels in despair. When he sings the refrain, there’s humor, but there’s also a sense of freedom:

No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

What release this song offers. When overwhelmed with the problems that seem so important, give this song a whirl. Go ahead, sing it aloud. Some will object to the inherent nihilism – is there no meaning to this life – but think of the freedom inherent in the understanding that no matter what we do, we’re all heading for the same grave? Isn’t that what the blues are, a way of taking our burdens and making them lighter?

And isn’t there a truth underlying the fun? Forget about living only for the next world. Forget about a culture that seeks to deny death. Take experiences for what they are. Find meaning not in what the present means for the future or the afterlife, but in the texture of the moment. It makes me think of a favorite poem by James Wight

Saint Judas
  

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

A friend an ex-work colleague, Bob Dawson, once told me that if you put together any list of the ten best country songs together that Hank Williams would have written eight of them. (Bob has some songwriting and performing chops himself and you can check out the Dawson Brothers web site at http://www.dawsonboys.com/.)

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